Every so often American Presidents let people know that they are reading a book. When George W. Bush was seen clutching a copy of Andrew Roberts’s History of the English Speaking People, acres of newsprint appeared on this elegant apologia for neo-conservatism. Now his successor in the White House wants us to know that he has a well-thumbed copy of Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals; and just in case you missed that, the publishers have helpfully emblazoned the front of the UK paperback edition with the headline ‘The Book that Inspired Barack Obama’.
He could have done much worse. For Team of Rivals is one of the best biographical histories I have read in years. It is a powerful, personal and pacy account of the Lincoln Presidency told through the story of the four men who competed for the nomination at the Republican Party’s first ever Convention in 1860. William Henry Seward was outwardly the most impressive and the clear front-runner. Although born into a slave-owning family, he and his wife were profoundly affected by the dismal sight of a chain-gang of child slaves being whipped along a road near Richmond, Virginia. As Senator for New York, Seward had courageously led the campaign against the extension of slavery into the new territories of an expanding United States. The price he paid for that leadership was the fear that his election would hasten schism with the South. His closest rival for the nomination should have been the Governor of Ohio, Salmon Chase. Chase too was a leading voice of the movement against slavery and a founder of the new Republican Party.
But his fastidious self-importance and moralising did not endear him even to his own state, and judging from this book his company would have been insufferable but for the fact that, at this widower’s side, was his brilliant, beautiful daughter Kate — the ‘it girl’ of her day. Edward Bates, a judge from St Louis, Missouri, was the eldest of the candidates and the compromise choice for those looking for reconciliation with the southern slave-owning states. And then there was Abraham Lincoln, a circuit lawyer from Springfield, Illinois who had recently shot to national prominence in a closely fought, eloquently argued and ultimately unsuccessful battle for his state’s Senate seat against the Democrat Stephen Douglas. No one gave him much of a chance. His desperately poor upbringing in a Kentucky log-cabin, his lack of experience, and his somewhat shambolic, gangly appearance, meant he enjoyed that greatest of political advantages of being consistently underestimated by his opponents — first as candidate for the Republican nomination and then as President of a country torn in half by bloody civil war.
To secure the nomination, Lincoln first manoeuvred to get the convention held in Chicago in his home state. Then he hit the trail, buttering up potential supporters in swing states like Pennsylvania, while his opponents remained aloof from the fray. Judging correctly that Seward would win the most votes but not a majority, Lincoln saw that his best chance stood in becoming everyone’s second choice. That he did, with the help of loyal friends and former adversaries that he had accumulated through long years on the gruelling judicial circuit round the small towns of rural Illinois, where night after night he would entertain the entire travelling court with the home-spun stories and well-honed phrasing that would later make him one of the greatest orators in history. He always sensed he was destined for greatness, but all the contemporary accounts speak of a man whose undoubted ambition never consumed his openheartedness or kindness.
Cliché has it that every new President is said to face a uniquely difficult set of challenges. In Lincoln’s case, they were the most difficult any President before or since has faced. By the time of his inauguration, more than half a dozen southern states had seceded from the Union and more states threatened. The very first decision he faced on his first day in office was one of the hardest: whether an attempt should be made to resupply the US army base at Fort Sumter in South Carolina, which became the catalyst for the civil war. To deal with these extraordinary problems, Lincoln had already taken the bold decision to bring into his Cabinet the men who he had beaten for his party’s nomination. Chase was appointed Treasury Secretary, while Bates became Attorney General. Seward became Secretary of State and, after a presumptuous attempt to become the chief executive of the new administration, settled into the more valued role of Lincoln’s closest ally. You get the impression from this book that Seward too could have been a great President.
This team of erstwhile rivals (hence the title) steered the Union through one of the most brutal civil wars in history, although the book makes clear that Lincoln and some of his initial ill-starred choices of military commanders made major mistakes early on that cost many lives. The political turning point came at the start of 1863, when Lincoln took one of the greatest gambles of American history and published the famous Emancipation Proclamation that declared that all three and a half million slaves in the Confederate states were now freed — a daring break from the previous assumption that the war was being fought to stop the spread of slavery, which risked pushing border states into secession. Although the thesis of the book is that the Union victory was a team effort, the Emancipation Proclamation appears to have been entirely Lincoln’s idea. Indeed, the abolitionist members of his Cabinet like Seward and Chase tried to dissuade him for tactical reasons. But Lincoln trusted his judgment, and that leadership plus the clear industrial advantage enjoyed by the North eventually brought victory. By the time it did, over 600,000 Americans had died, more than have died in all the other wars America has fought — from the Revolution to the second world war to Afghanistan — put together.
From the moment Barack Obama launched his own campaign for the Presidency on the steps of the State Capitol in Springfield, Illinois, he has sought the mantle of Lincoln. He swore the oath of office on Lincoln’s bible, ate for his inauguration lunch Lincoln’s favourite recipes off replica Mary Lincoln china and alluded to this book and Lincoln’s appointment of rivals when he made Hillary Clinton his Secretary of State. But the greatest debt Obama owes to the remarkable prairie lawyer who became President is the simple fact that he is able to stand for office at all. This brilliant book deserves its place on his bedside table — and yours.